Dr. Bill's Advice on Disaster Preparedness
It seems as if we are getting more and more extreme
weather here in New England over the past few years.
In 2011 we had tropical storm / hurricane Irene,
tornados, and a surprise Halloween blizzard (as well
as an earthquake, which really doesn't count). In 2012,
on the 1-year anniversary of the 2011 blizzard, we had
hurricane Sandy come up the Atlantic coast, which
combined with a cold front that came across the U.S.
from the West, as well as a cold air mass down
from Canada. The resulting combination came to be
known as "Frankenstorm".
One remarkable aspect of most of these storms is that
there is often a considerable amount of lead-time
before the disaster strikes, sometimes as much as
two to three days. This allows for most
people an unprecedented grace period to prepare for
Unfortunately, many people seem to think
that preparing for disaster means stocking up on
beer and toilet paper; while I grant the toilet paper
is important, beer isn't really important to your
long-term survival. What is?
I've been asked by my students to write up a list
of things they can do to prepare for these kinds
of events. Herewith are my recommendations, but
bear in mind that the list will change as I think
of more ways to prepare. With few exceptions,
most of these items are fairly low-impact, in the
sense that they don't require a lot of money or
time spent up front in order to prepare. Most
are just simple common sense. A few, however,
do require a bit more preparation.
- Fill car gas tanks.
Should it be necessary to evacuate the area,
you do not want to be competing with everyone
else trying to do the same thing. Get gas
early, before the rush. We're not talking
about fleeing the zombie apocalypse, mind you,
but you want to keep your options open.
A car plus an inverter (see below) can be
used to keep cell phones and other devices
charged, although it is expensive in gasoline
to do so.
- Fill Prescriptions.
If there is a loss of electricity or other
services, you may have difficulty in refilling
medical prescriptions for several days. Plan ahead.
- Get Cash.
A loss of electricity means that ATMs and point-of-sale
credit card readers will no longer work. Cash always
works. Get plenty.
- Do Laundry.
Start with as much in the way of clean laundry
as you can. It may be a while before you can
run a load of wash. If you have water, however,
you can do hand-wash in the sink, and hang clothes
to dry on a rack. If the water fails, however,
save any water you have for drinking.
- Fill Large Jugs of Water.
Loss of water is one of the worst things that can
happen. Each person needs to consume between
2½ and 4 liters of water per day (around
¾ to 1 gallon), plus water for hygene.
In most cases, however, you don't need to purchase
water from a grocery store - you just need storage
I recommend that one or two five-gallon jugs
be purchased and filled ahead of time. Alternatively,
bottled water be purchased from
the store, but people will tend to buy down these
supplies quickly. If water supplies fail, large jugs of
water can be used for toilet flushing, but use this
sparingly (don't flush after every use, for example).
- Configure the Freezer
Fill quart zip-lock bags with clean water and put them in the freezer.
Once completely frozen, this will give extra cooling capacity to
the freezer if power is lost, and will provide another backup source
of fresh drinking water. You can use a couple of them to pack around
a small number of perishable items in the refrigerator to keep them
longer than otherwise possible. Also, if the power is off long
enough for the bags to defrost completely back to water,
you will know that the contents of the freezer are no longer
being preserved and should be discarded.
- Eat Perishable Food in Refrigerator/Freezer.
Don't buy perishable food within 2-3 days of a storm
event, and eat down what you have. Make soup! It
is a good way to use up leftovers, frozen vegetables,
etc. If the storm event also involves a large amount of
snow, you can reduce the amount of food waste that
occurs by packing perishables in a cooler and burying
the cooler in a snowbank.
- Buy Non-Perishable Food.
Buy food that can be stored for a long time AND can
be eaten without a lot of preparation. Without
electricity, you may not have much in the way of means
to heat food (exceptions see below), so you'll need
to acquire high-energy but low maintenance food
items. Some examples:
Cans of soup (can be eaten cold if necessary)
Cans of tomato juice or V8™ vegetable juice
Fruits and Vegetables:
Oranges or Clementines
Green Peppers (eat raw)
Cans of Olives
In the case of a winter storm where heat in the house
is lost, bananas and avocados may not last as they are
very sensitive to cold.
- Make Food Items that Won't Require Preparation Later.
A number of food items require a fair amount of initial
preparation, but once made will last a long time. For example,
hard-boil any eggs you have. They'll stay fresh for days afterwards
if kept cool. If you are so inclined to bake bread, or have a
bread machine, make several loaves of bread ahead of time.
Bake biscuits - they'll last several days cold.
- Turn Off and Un-Plug any Unnecessary Electrical Equipment.
Power in your area may be lost. When restored, all the devices
that are still plugged in and on will instantly demand power. This may
cause a spike that can damage some sensitive equipment. If power is
lost, unplug those things that you don't need immediately (clocks, TVs,
microwave ovens, laundry machines, computers, etc.). If power loss is
imminent, you may wish to preemptively unplug sensitive and delicate
electronics. Leave the refrigerator and freezer plugged in, as they
will need power immediately upon restoration, but these devices are
among the worst at causing electrical spikes.
- Charge Cell Phones.
Keep your cell phone batteries topped off at all times. This may
be your lifeline to the outside world. Do be aware, however, that
cell towers may fail (lose power, be damaged by wind), and a cell
phone may not work in your area. Land-line phones are powered
by their own central office, and might not fail when the main
electricity goes off (unless of course a wire is broken). It is
best to have both a land-line available and a cell phone.
- Charge iPads and Laptop Computers.
The Apple iPad™ when equipped with a cell connection (instead
of just WiFi) can be one of the most valuable communication tools
in your arsenal. As long as the cell towers are running, you can
get to the Web for weather updates and can send email to those
people who are worried about you. Similarly, it is possible that
the electricity in your house fails but the TV cable still works,
so if the cable modem is on an uninterruptible power supply (UPS,
see below) you could use a laptop to get to the Web. Some laptops
use cellular modems; with one of these the laptop is dependant
only on cell towers working in order to connect to the Web.
Don't waste laptop/tablet power on trivial things - use Facebook
only to report that you are OK, for example, or to communicate
- Charge Cameras, Flashlights, Radios, etc.
Make sure that any devices with internal batteries that you cannot
remove or are unique to the device are charged up.
- Find Your Flashlight(s) and Extra Batteries.
Most flashlights run on AA or AAA replaceable batteries. Make sure
you know where your flashlights are, make sure that the batteries
are fresh, and make sure you have plenty of extra batteries on
hand. LED flashlights are generally more reliable than old-style
incandescent flashlights, and batteries last longer as well.
- Charge up any Portable Power Tools.
It might seem unnecessary right now, but this can be very important.
Many power tools such as drills and power saws use rechargeable
batteries, but also a number of other devices use those same
interchangeable batteries. For example, Ryobi sells a line
of tools using the One+ System™ where the same type
of batteries are used by drills, saws, chainsaws, fans, and
LED lights. A battery-powered saw or chainsaw may be needed
to clear a fallen tree branch, the fan may be used to dry out a
damp bathroom, and the LED light is obviously useful. Ryobi tools
are available at Home Depot, and a number of similar devices
are available from other manufacturers.
- Consider Purchase of a Propane Camp Stove or Weber Kettle.
Many big-box stores such as Walmart, as well as camping
supply stores, have propane powered camping stoves with
one, two, or more burners. One of these devices can
be used to heat soup or water (for either drinking or
bathing), or even to cook whole meals if not too elaborate.
Similarly, a Weber Kettle can be used for cooking outside, even
in inclement weather, and to a lesser extent so can a
$5 grocery store hibachi. For these devices keep plenty
of charcoal and lighter fluid handy.
WARNING: Propane stoves use oxygen and give off poisonous
gasses, so do not use in a closed room. It is best to
use them outside. NEVER USE CHARCOAL GRILLS INDOORS.
- Consider Purchase of a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).
A UPS is often used to buffer temporary power glitches
and prevent computing devices from going through a
re-start process when power is lost for only a few
seconds. I use one on my cable modem and router, so
that they continue to work even if the computers or
printers go off-line. If, as mentioned above, electricity
goes out but the TV cable is OK, a UPS can be used to
power the cable modem and router long enough that a
laptop with WiFi can communicate with the outside world.
There are other solutions, as shown below.
- Consider Purchase of an Inverter and Lead-Acid Battery.
An inverter converts 12 volts DC to 120 volts AC, and can
be used to power devices that normally get their power from
the wall outlets. The 12 volts DC can be from a car, using
the cigarette lighter power socket, allowing power for as long
as the battery keeps a charge or as long as the car can run
(that is, using the gasoline to keep the car battery charged
and using the battery to power the inverter). Alternatively,
you can purchase a separate lead-acid battery and charger,
then run the inverter off that battery as long as its charge
holds. A lead-acid battery for a car is quite large, heavy,
and expensive, but will power an inverter for a long time.
While a battery for a motorcycle is both smaller and cheaper it
won't hold a charge for as long. Use this setup for keeping
cell phones charged, or for running the sump-pump motor in
the cellar if there is a danger of flooding.
- Home Owners: Consider Purchase of a Generator.
All of the advice above is fairly low-impact, and can be
done by anyone on limited budgets. Use of gas-powered
generators is increasing in popularity, but they can be
expensive (particularly large capacity generators) and
dangerous if used or installed improperly. When properly
used, a generator can supply power to enough devices that
most conveniences are maintained (lights, cell phones,
electric starts on gas stoves, fans and pellet feeders
on wood stoves, refrigerators, etc.).
- And If You Have a Shop…
One thing that you could do ahead of time with a properly
equipped shop (drill or drillpress) is to construct one
or more candle-stoves. Take an empty metal soup can,
and on a drill press drill ¼-inch holes spaced
about ¾-inch apart all around the top (rim) and
bottom of the side of the can. Next, take a lit candle, and
melt some wax into the center of the bottom inside the can,
and seat the candle in the wax puddle, then let harden.
After power is lost, you can use the candle-stove to
heat small amounts of water.
Set the can on something that will not melt or burn
(iron or stone), light the candle, and put a small teapot
of water on top of the can. You'll get enough hot water
for a cup of tea or coffee in about 45 minutes.
Copyright ©2012-2013 Dr. William T. Verts. All Rights Reserved.